Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"What's Wrong With Being Sexy?" -- DC Reboot Overview

So launch month of the DC Reboot is over. I've reviewed all the books I picked up (and a few I didn't), but how'd they do overall? Pretty well, as it turns out...

Money Money Money

Financially, the Reboot can't be seen as anything but an unmitigated success. Many of the launch issues are going back for a second print, with a good few of them getting a third. And it's not just the big name titles getting second prints, either: calculated risk Animal Man is getting a second print, apparently off good word of mouth alone. And Swamp Thing, which ought to be a big name but hasn't been for most of the last 20 years, has just been announced for a third.

Even more interestingly, sales may have actually picked up as the month went along. At the very least, I know I started seeing more sell-outs at my local funnybook store as we got deeper into the launch. And the guys there tell me that they steadily had more new customers making pull lists. That last phenomenon got so big toward the end that it overwhelmed their ordering: they didn't have enough of some books to fill all their subscriptions, and they were sold out of every big-name title released by the time I arrived two hours after they opened.

(This is not a criticism, by the way. I'm glad they're having so much success. More power to ya, boys!)

So it looks like the new reader appeal is working out well, better even than I was expecting. And I was expecting a lot. The biggest sales seem to be centered on the characters everybody knows, which may be only natural. We already know that the hardcore funnybook dorks prefer their traditional characters, after all, and most newbies are probably going to get their feet wet with a character they're already familiar with, too. This could also mean that the sales upsurge is a speculator boom, of course; you don't have to be Bob Overstreet to figure out that Action Comics #1 is going to be worth more than, say, Men of War #1 (I say that now, of course. In ten years' time, when Men of War has sparked a war comics overthrow of the funnybook market, I'll be eating my words). But we'll see. If DC's still selling high in six months to a year, we'll know that they brought in an influx of new readers, rather than just a bunch of assholes out to make a buck.

Either way, more people in the funnybook store is a good thing at this point. Even if they are speculators, they're still bringing some much-needed dollars into an industry that's been hurting for a good long while. And some of them are bound to stick around, too, so I doubt this thing's going to leave the industry worse off than it was before.

We're still only talking about sales figures through actual comics shops, too. I don't think we've seen any numbers off digital sales as yet, and that may be what really tells us whether DC's picked up speculators or new readers. Of course, you'd think that if the digital numbers had been super-impressive, DC would have been trumpeting them...

Creatively Speaking

So we know that the Reboot's been a rousing success financially. But what about creatively? That, I think, is more of a mixed bag. It certainly represents something of a sea-change for the company, as they try to make their super heroes cool. That's the thing Marvel's really had over DC all these years, after all: their characters are simply a lot cooler. The DC heroes are cool in their own way, of course. I mean, they've got a guy from Mars who's monstrously strong, telepathic, can fly, and has the ability to change his shape. And what is this alien powerhouse's schtick? Why, he's a detective, of course! Duh! That's completely insane, and amazingly cool! But it's cool in a way that's ultimately kind of nerdy, and that doesn't really translate into any sort of cool factor for anybody who doesn't love super hero comics on a genetic level.

But now, the whole line's getting a cool-over. Batman's always been cool, of course (there's nobody cooler, in fact), but now even his buddy Superman's getting in on the act. He's younger, and espousing a political philosophy that, in light of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of the past couple of weeks, may very well reflect the emerging youth culture of the new decade. If they were gonna keep him in that t-shirt and jeans, he might just become the idol of America's youth. And holy crap whoever thought I might be saying that about Superman ever again?

Of course, the increase in the cool factor isn't all pretty. There's definitely something of a lowest common denominator mentality at work, as well, a blatant and obvious pandering to the basest instincts of the 18-35-year-old male demographic. The obvious stuff's garnered the most attention: Starfire's indiscriminate sexual appetites that turn the character into some kind of frat boy wet dream; Catwoman's kinky costumed tryst with Batman, stolen completely and shamelessly from Frank Miller, but without Miller's sense of humor, or gift for parody; and Voodoo's issue-long stripper parade.

DC's output has always been geared to the male audience, of course; the idea of the super hero as male power fantasy was old even when I was a kid. But, man. Some of this stuff's got the smirking air of a Spike TV ad, except without that channel's general sense of humor about itself. And that's really where the problem lies, I think. If, like Spike TV, they'd just come right out and admitted that these books were meant as chuckle-headed entertainment for people who like boobies, it might have been okay. There's nothing inherently wrong with peddling a little adolescent semi-porn, after all. It's dumb, but no moreso than the adolescent slugfests that have been the bread and butter of every super hero publisher in the history of the genre.

But they're defending this crap as serious psychological study, describing these characters as liberated women and sexual feminists, and really... It's just not defensible along those lines. They're embarrassing themselves with these arguments. It reminds me of that scene from Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel responds to allegations of sexism with the immortal words...

"What's wrong with bein' sexy?"

Of course, it's not all tits and ass in the DC Reboot. It's that mix, that attempt to appeal to more than one taste, that takes some of the curse off the T&A books for me. Sure, they're dumb, but there are other books in the line with female leads that might appeal more to female readers. Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Supergirl, and Batwoman all feature strong women, and don't pander to male sex fantasies (the fishnets, thigh-highs, black leather, and lack of Wonder-Pants notwithstanding).

And that's what saves the Reboot for me creatively. Sure, there are 90s-style super-team books (Justice League, Teen Titans), super-macho action movie war books (Men of War, Blackhawk), overly-grim Batman books that unwittingly wander into self-parody (Dark Knight, Detective Comics), and all manner of comics-as-usual super hero pablum (most of the line). But there are also horror comics (Swamp Thing, I Vampire), intelligent new super hero approaches (Action Comics, Wonder Woman, Animal Man), and pure eruptions of pulp weirdness (Frankenstein, OMAC). Most of it's not to my taste, but there's not a single approach being pushed, no line-wide style. There's a little something for everybody, and that is a damned smart way to put together a publishing plan.

So, much as I've lambasted them for a lack of creative vision on a lot of their output, I can't entirely dismiss it. I think I'll personally wind up following somewhere between five and eight of the 15 titles that tempted me in September (though some of them will no doubt be on the cheaper one-month-later digital plan), and that's a shit-load more DC than I was buying a month ago. And if they've won over a picky old bastard like me, on even a fraction of their line... They must be doing something right.


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